John Marrs’ rapid-paced The Passengers is Speed on steroids, an adrenaline-pumped novel so heavily plotted that it is virtually impossible to hold back spoilers. In the near future, the UK House of Lords has voted unanimously to favor driverless cars on British roads with the intent to ban all non-autonomous vehicles within ten years’ time. What appears to be a reasonable solution to air pollution and safety concerns quickly escalates into a cautionary tale about artificial intelligence, government intervention, and moral relativism.
The titular passengers who find themselves locked in their driverless Level 5 vehicles include a 26-year-old special-needs teacher seven months pregnant with her first child, a 78-year-old actress past her professional prime, a married couple, an abused wife, a non-English-speaking Somali immigrant, a disabled war veteran, and a suicidal young man. Each hides a very dark secret. Among them is a bigamist, a pedophile, a blackmailer, an adulterer, and an alleged murderer.
Connecting all of them is a hacker with plans to determine their destiny. He programs each vehicle to drive to an “alternative destination” where the possibility of a death sentence awaits each passenger at the end of their trip. Along for the ride, so to speak, are the five members of the government committee charged with determining fault when an autonomous car is involved in any crash: a transport minister, a barrister, a religious pluralist, a pathologist, and a mental- health nurse trainee. The hacker demands the jury decide his passengers’ fates. Marrs widens the story further by turning the kidnappings into a media event when it becomes a worldwide live reality TV show where viewers get the chance to vote for their favorite passenger.
The parallel narrative lines converge as the countdown continues right up to the climactic last seconds. Finally, the clock runs out, but not before Marrs presents a few more surprises in the last big reveal. Some readers will have worked out the identity of the hacker early on. Nevertheless, The Passengers has a properly satisfying, head-spinning conclusion.